On Sunday 5 October, fans filed into the Meadow Parks football stadium in Borehamwood, a town in the south Hertfordshire commuter belt. The sun was shining, and the stalls half full, as the match between Arsenal Ladies and Liverpool Ladies got underway. It was a different crowd to that usually seen at football matches; mostly made up of families – fathers, daughters, grandparents. At a few points during the game, the Liverpool fans started up a chant but it never lasted long. Apart from the occasional shout from both sides of “go on!” or “come on ref!” there was near silence, apart from cheers and claps for the goals. On the home fans’ side (Borehamwood is the home of Arsenal Ladies; though it is nearly 13 miles from the famous Emirates stadium) sat a row of primary school aged girls clad in the red football strip of Arsenal, watching avidly as the players worked their way to a 3-3 draw.
Like most games in the Women’s Super League (WSL), the highest league for women’s football in the UK, there were around 5-600 spectators. It was a healthy showing in this small stadium, but no comparison to the tens of thousands that turn out to watch Arsenal or Liverpool men’s teams to play in Premier League matches. Could women’s football ever match the men’s game? During the London Olympics 2012, the England-Brazil women’s match saw Wembley Stadium packed out with 70,000 fans, while millions more watched it on television.
Partly prompted by this success, the Football Association (FA) has launched a five-year plan to revolutionise women’s football. It aims to make it the second most popular sport in the UK, after men’s football – displacing men’s cricket and rugby union, which are currently the second and third most popular. The plan is to achieve this through a combination of growing the sport at the grassroots, professionalising the top levels of women’s football, and investing in growing the fan base and public awareness.
It has been nearly a decade since the FA’s president, Sepp Blatter, declared that “the future is feminine”, but progress has been slow. A recent survey of women working in the football industry found that two-thirds had experienced sexism at work, while more than a third believed they were underpaid compared to male colleagues. Despite these continuing issues within the industry, there have been major improvements in terms of female participation. Back in the 1990s, there were only around 80 women’s football teams across the UK; there are now thousands, meaning that more women and girls have access to the sport.
Kelly Simmons is the director of women’s football at the FA, where she has worked for over 20 years. We met in her office at Wembley Stadium, at the back of a huge open plan office of FA staff. “When you tell people that football is the most popular sport for women in England, and the fourth most popular sport overall, people are surprised,” she says. “My generation of women was offered netball, hockey, and rounders at school. It’s this generation coming through where more have had the opportunity to play in school and local clubs. Surveys suggest there’s still half a million women who would like to play football and don’t. There’s no reason why we can’t invest more and close that gap.”
Another strand of the FA’s strategy is to split the commercial rights to men’s football and women’s football; previously the television rights were lumped together and women’s games got lost in the mix. Now, BT Sport and the BBC show top women’s games. There is also an attempt to professionalise the sport at the top levels; for years, women’s football ran mainly as an amateur, voluntary-led sport, with even those playing at national level doing so for free, or for very little money. In 2009, England put 18 of its top players on central contracts. There are now 26 England players paid an annual salary, and WSL teams pay their top players too. When central contracts were first introduced, England players got £16,000, a sum described by the football union’s chief, Gordon Taylor, as “embarrassing”. It has since been upped to £20,000. Players are allowed to work up to 24 hours a week in a second job. Critics point out that male Premiership League footballers earn more than that in a day, but others argue that there is no point making this comparison. “Men’s football is 150 years old and a multibillion pound industry so I don’t really compare the women’s game to that,” says Simmons. “It’s about turning what was amateur into a professional sport.”
While it is certainly true that women’s football lags far behind men’s in terms of prestige, funding, and commercialism, however, it is inaccurate to think – as many do – that it is a new sport. Women’s football first made a splash in England in 1895, when the Ladies’ Football Association was founded by women with links to the burgeoning suffragist movement. “There is no reason why football should not be played by women, and played well too, provided they dress rationally and relegate to limbo the straitjacket attire in which fashion delights to attire them,” Lady Florence Dixie, the head of the association, wrote in a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette in 1895. It was controversial to see women playing football, which meant that matches (there were two teams, “north” and “south”) were attended by several thousand people. But it wasn’t to last; the Ladies’ Football Association soon fell apart because of organisational issues.
Over the next few decades, after the formation of the FA in 1863, the men’s game evolved into a professional sport that paid its players and attracted big crowds of spectators. It soon became a money-making operation. When the First World War began, men went to war in their droves, leaving behind a deficit in all industries, including sports. The war revolutionised gender roles across the board – at least temporarily – and women took up work in factories. It was at the munitions factories, mainly those in the north-east and north-west of England, that women’s football really took off. Teams of factory girls began to play against each other, initially in novelty events to raise funds for the war effort. In the early stages, some games featured women in comedy costumes, or playing with one arm strapped behind their backs. Gradually, though, the game became more serious. Structured competition was introduced and dozens of teams formed. By September 1917, 14 teams had registered for the Munition Girls’ Challenge Cup. The Cup final at Ayresome Park drew 22,000 spectators, with the money raised continuing to go towards the war effort. Certain teams became famous, and played with increasing seriousness. The team that came to dominate the sport was called the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies (named for the factory in Preston, Lancashire, where the women worked). The team toured France and appeared regularly on Pathe newsreels.
Dick, Kerr Ladies FC in 1921. Photo: WikiCommons
Even after the war ended in 1919 and men returned home, women’s football continued to be immensely popular. Crowds attended matches in their thousands, while charities competed for the favour of top teams. In 1920, the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies played 30 games – more than any professional men’s team played in the same period. A famous 1920 match at Goodison Park in Liverpool (home of Everton FC) between the Dick, Kerr’s Ladies and another top team, St Helen’s Ladies, attracted 53,000 spectators. A further 14,000 fans were turned away.
The sheer numbers show that there was no question of the public’s continued interest in women’s football; but the political tide began to turn. The idea began to re-emerge that it was a threat to women’s health and morality to play football. In December 1921, the FA banned women from using any professional stadiums. “Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, the Council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for women and ought not to be encouraged,” it said, in a statement that also alleged financial corruption within women’s football.
On top of the fact that women factory workers were gradually leaving their jobs and returning to the domestic sphere, this ban dealt a serious blow to the game. The English Ladies’ Football Association was formed soon afterwards and created a league of 57 teams, but it was strictly amateur. Its successor, the Women’s Football Association, was formed decades later, in 1969. Under the WFA, women’s football continued, with a national England team and a premier league. However, limited resources and the fact that it was a voluntary-led organisation restricted its development; even at the top levels, matches were often cancelled or rescheduled. “Player pathways” – whereby talented young players are scouted through grassroots football teams and get involved in increasingly elite training from a young age – are well established for boys, but for girls, were practically non-existent.
It was only in 1992 that the FA decided to lift its ban on women and bring the women’s game under its formal control. This was despite an international recommendation in the 1970s for all football authorities to incorporate the women’s game, and the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975 (the bill included a clause exempting sports).
Most agree that it has been positive for women’s football to be brought under the auspices of the FA. “The WFA did a brilliant job as a voluntary organisation, but the amount of human and financial resources the FA could put behind women’s football was a major change,” says Simmons. The FA established player pathways, worked to improve access to football for girls in schools, and established centres of excellence for talented girls to receive more intense training.
Faye White, one of England’s top female footballers until her retirement in 2012, lived through the changes. “I started playing with my brother and his friends, until I joined a local girls’ team in Horsham when I was 14,” she tells me when we speak on the phone. “That was the first awareness I had that there were other girls who wanted to play. I didn’t even realise there was an England team.” Through playing with her local team, White was scouted for England in 1995, and joined Arsenal Ladies in 1996. She spent the rest of her career playing with both, and served as England captain in 2002.
The day-to-day life of a top female footballer has little in common with that of a top male player. Initially White lived in Horsham and worked as a fitness instructor, travelling to London’s Highbury one evening a week to train with Arsenal, and going all over the country to play matches at weekends. She took unpaid leave from work to play for England in international tournaments. Around 2005, she moved to London so that she could be closer to the club and train more regularly. Arsenal gave her a job as development officer, a role that could be slotted around her match commitments. In her last few years as a player, she was one of the England players given an annual salary.
White thinks there has been a positive change over the course of her 17-year career. “The perception has changed. When I started, there was the stigma that it was tomboyish, a butch game, whereas nowadays people are more open to it. There’s still a lot of work to do – every boy thinks it’s just natural to play, whereas it’s not that accessible to all girls around the country – but it’s a lot better than when I started.”
Faye White playing for England in 2010. Photo: Getty
Despite these positive changes, however, there remains a perception amongst much of the public that women’s sport in general – and particularly football, given the popularity of the game – is inferior to men’s. “That’s not about sport, that’s a thing that happens in society – the idea that women can’t do XYZ because women are better at ABC,” says Carrie Dunn, an academic at the University of East London and co-author of the forthcoming book, The FA Women’s Super League: its history, governance and impact. “Women’s football isn’t necessarily the same game as men’s football. It’s played on the same pitches and it’s 11-a-side, but you probably get a slower game and get players running with the ball more. But you get different levels and standards of men’s football, and people still go and watch. Just because it’s not equivalent to Premier League football doesn’t mean it’s not a valid sport or not worth watching or investing in.”
Although there have been marked improvements in coverage, WSL games are not standardly covered by national newspapers, and televised games are sporadic and shown at irregular times. All of this makes it harder to grow the fan-base. While editors argue that they will not cover women’s football until there is evidence that readers are interested, women working in the industry argue that this is self-defeating. “The sports pages still cover county cricket, and many more people attend WSL games than county cricket,” says Dunn.
The differences in the women’s game – not just in terms of physicality but the very structure of the sport – is something that feminist academics have highlighted as a possible reason for the FA’s long hostility to the game. In her book, The Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, Barbara Jacobs argues that the grassroots origins of women’s football posed a threat to the male power structures of the FA: “Women’s football was something they were powerless to control. It has sprung up as the spontaneous expression of free-spiritedness by the lower orders, in a totally different way from that in which men’s football had developed. Men’s football had initially been a game for gentlemen which had only later, after its control by the FA, turned into a rough-house performed for the working classes by the working classes, which they and they alone paid to see while the owners and investors pocketed the proceeds… But in women’s football there were very few rich men, just a lot of common factory women. There was no League structure, no hierarchy, no fees paid to accountants, no skimming off dividends, no affiliation to a professional body. Women’s football was random and organic… It was out of control, and it was a bad example to set the nation as a whole, which was already rebelling against the old power structures.”
A contrast can be drawn to America, where women’s football – or soccer – did not spring up randomly and organically, but is an organised, fully professional sport. Like other sports in the US, women’s soccer benefited from the passage of Title IX in 1972, a rule that mandates equal funding for women’s athletics programmes in college. This led to the formation of women’s soccer teams at universities; a national team followed in 1985. The US, not a traditional football-playing country, dominates international women’s football.
Leanne Champ is currently a football coach in Boston. She moved to the US in 2012, after spending her career playing for the Millwall Lionesses, Arsenal Ladies, and Chelsea Ladies. Like White, she had to work alongside playing throughout her footballing career in the UK. During her time at Chelsea, she was a postwoman, waking up at 5am to work and then training in the evenings. Later, at Arsenal, she took a job in the club laundry.
“The States has always been way ahead England in terms of the women’s game,” she tells me over the phone from her home in Boston. “Especially this year, the US League is on a par with the men’s game in terms of the level.” She suggests that women’s football in England may suffer from comparison to the men’s sport, given its immense popularity. “It’s our biggest sport in England and everyone compares, saying that women are not the same as men. In America, I’d say women’s soccer is more popular than the men’s. It’s not perceived as ‘a girl playing football’ – it’s more that girls play football, guys play football. You just respect the game.”
She describes the frustration felt by some women footballers in the UK, who mostly still work part-time to support themselves, even if they receive annual salaries from their clubs. “If you’re playing for the highest level for your country and you see what the men get – it’s just crazy to think how different it would be if you were a guy. But it’s going in the right direction.”
Supporters of the US women’s soccer team at a match against Russia in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2014. Photo: Getty
The women’s league in America is currently in its third incarnation, as the National Women’s Soccer League; it has previously folded twice after paying very high sums to its players. The NWSL, founded in 2013, caps player salaries, so it is no longer the draw for international players that it once was – but it still stands out from other countries as a fully professional women’s football league. (By comparison, women’s basketball in the US is equivalent to women’s football in the UK – semi-professional, with women’s teams often affiliated to men’s teams). Perhaps surprisingly, many British female players do not want to see the astronomical money paid to male footballers emulated in the women’s game. “It’s great that amounts are going up for female players in this country, but it has to be realistic and in step with the number of people coming through the door,” says White. “It can spiral out of control.”
Most people working in women’s football feel that things are moving in the right direction, regardless of comparisons to men’s football. “The finances and resources are increasing in the game and we’d love it to be increased more to give the players opportunity to be fully-fledged professionals,” says Mark Sampson, coach for the England women’s team. “But for us it’s not about being jealous of the men’s game, it’s about working with what we’ve got, making the best of it, and trying to increase it.”
White recalls that when she first played for England, there was no kit custom-made for women. “We had to wear the men’s kit. It was so baggy and oversized, but it was the best we could have. Now it’s all tailored to women. Nike, Puma, Umbro, they’re all sponsoring the top players and producing kits for them.” The little girls in the audience at Meadow Park had clearly taken advantage of this; one 8 year old wore a kit bearing the name “Stoney”, for Casey Stoney, captain of Arsenal Ladies and England star. An England-Germany women’s match in November will take place at Wembley Stadium, harking back to the 1921 match that drew such huge crowds. After years in the shadows, women’s football is coming back.